The Qomolangma Monorail — Qomolangma being the local name for the great mountain peak — opened on 1 October 2071, 100 years to the day after Disney World in Florida. The Mouse Marketing people consistently and stubbornly refer to it as The Everest Express, especially to European and American clientele. The Disney corporation had purchased Tibet from a Chinese conglomerate. Their Mission to Mariana (which had premiered in 2055, not coincidentally 100 years after Disney Land in California) had been an abysmal failure.
The monorail competes directly with a fleet of helicopters named after NASA Space Shuttles run by the rival Six Flags Over Nepal. Those touch down on a large landing pad that had been installed on the nearby Lhotse peak, not on Qomolangma. But a slight tilt on the pad gives tourists the illusion they are at least level with the higher peak and many will swear they are above it. (At the time the landing pad was built it was unthinkable to build on the actual highest peak; Super Rat apparently thought nothing of it.) The rotors on the helicopters keep turning for the 150 second stay while tourists ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ and snap lousy photos through small triple-paned windows. No one is allowed to exit the craft at that elevation — no one would survive more than two or three minutes if they tried. The helicopters were the only game in town for a couple decades before the monorail was built and are still a nostalgic favorite for a whole generation of travelers.
No one climbs any more. Not legally anyway. Besides, why walk when you can ride? So imagine my surprise when rumors spread through the long, serpentine queue outside the monorail terminal of a small group of climbers approaching the summit. I considered the possibility that it was all part of the experience, like the animatronic creatures that “attacked” the Jungle Cruise with clock-like precision in the old theme parks. After all, how hard would it be to position a few robotic climbers clad in bright colors some distance from the upper reach of the track that spring into action for each passing tram, but never really go anywhere?
At any rate, I had to hand it to the Imagineers; they had tackled monumental obstacles in designing and installing the monorail. First, they had designed a track system that they could keep clear of ice and snow for six months of the year. Second, they had built it on the steepest and roughest terrain imaginable. Third, the trams and terminals are all pressurized and oxygenated and have large windows, so the views throughout the trip are spectacular. Fourth, the peak itself is now in a glass-walled, climate-controlled enclosure affording everyone a quick photo-op (for an additional fee). Plus, the gift shop up there is the only place in the world you can buy an “It’s a TALL World” T-shirt.
In typical Mouse House fashion, the trip was augmented with audio/video presentations that gave light versions of the history of mountain climbing in general and Everest climbing in particular. The region’s turbulent political past was conspicuously absent as was a failed attempt at building a funicular up there before the monorail. I tuned out the canned patter and enjoyed the views out the window until a kid sitting behind me got motion sickness and puked in his mother’s lap. The crew sprang into action to clean up the mess while the child was comforted by a cast member dressed like some princess from one of the animated movies. There was a time when I could have told you which one, but these days fake princesses all look the same to me. Anyway, it was during this distraction that I noticed several people in the back with what looked to be real climbing gear. It made me wonder whether the rumors had been true — this seemed excessive for a standard safety measure, but looked about right for a search and rescue squad. Still, it could have all been part of the act.
As we neared the top we could indeed see what appeared to be a half-dozen or so climbers slowly trudging upward on the steep and icy slope. I glanced back at the presumed rescue squad who sat in stony silence; suddenly it all looked very real. When the rest of us shuffled off the tram into the upper terminal, they gathered their gear and disappeared through a door behind the gift shop. Moments later we saw them outside on an intercept course with the rogue climbers. There ensued much pointing, waving of arms, and shaking of heads by members of both groups. It appeared that the climbers had no desire to be rescued. It also appeared that rescuer’s intent was more akin to capture and detain. Ultimately, the climbers gave in and they allowed the squad to escort them to the terminal.
They all stayed sequestered behind the gift shop until seconds before the tram departed for the trip back down the mountain. Then, having been relieved of their climbing gear and wearing nothing warmer than flannel shirts, the climbers were quickly and quietly transferred to the back of the tram. The “rescuers” maintained painted-on smiles when most of the passengers broke into spontaneous applause. We were all oh-so-politely reminded to stay seated during the descent, and to please enjoy yet another blah blah blah something on the video screen that I had ceased to be interested in even before it started.
Why? I wondered. Why risk one’s life to climb? I mean, people died trying to climb this mountain. Some still die on other peaks where climbing is still legal. Isn’t the view from the top the same whether you walk or ride? “Because it’s there” seems like such a lame reason. I decided I would never understand. I also realized I had forgotten to buy the damn T-shirt.
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